Saturday, September 07, 2013

"I'll have the businessman's special": A sermon for the reception of the Rev. Aaron J. Oliver as a priest in the Episcopal Church. (J. Barry Vaughn, Sept. 7, 2013)

Years ago there was a cartoon in the New Yorker that showed several priests seated at a table in a restaurant. When the waitress asked for their order, one of them said, “I’ll have the businessman’s special.”


That image has always stuck with me because for me, at least, it epitomizes one of my greatest fears: the fear of looking ridiculous.


There is something a little ridiculous about being a Christian, and there is something even more ridiculous about being a priest or pastor.


In spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, even though we live in a world of earthquakes and hurricanes, AIDS and cancer, Christians believe that there is pattern and meaning to the world, that it is God’s good creation. Furthermore, wee believe that God was uniquely present in the life of a Palestinian peasant named Jesus of Nazareth and that through his death on a cross God is reconciling the world to himself. And by the way, he also rose from the dead. To which the world replies, "Oh, really?!"


Priests believe that they have been called by this God to tell the world about Jesus and that God uses us to bestow reconciling grace in the sacrament of baptism and to communicate God’s own life to the world in the sacrament of holy eucharist.


I’ll have the businessman’s special, please!


I’d like to be taken as seriously as my friends who went to law school or medical school or business school, but that’s difficult when your uniform is not a business suit or surgical scrubs but these elaborate and expensive vestments that are modeled on garments worn by officials of the Roman empire almost 2000 years ago.


And the church often makes it as difficult as possible for us to do our jobs. Commissions on ministry and - I'm sorry, Bishop Dan, but I have to say this - even bishops are looking for men and women who are psychologically healthy and well-educated.


Imagine how difficult it would have been for the prophet Isaiah to get ordained.


"Isaiah, would you tell us about your call to ordained ministry?"


"Well, I was so disturbed by the death of King Uzziah that I went to the temple to pray. And while I was there, I saw God. God was surrounded by a swarm of seraphim. Did you know that they have six wings? They cover their eyes with two wings; they cover their ... uh... 'feet' with two; and they use the other two to fly. They also sing while they are flying. You can imagine that I was a little overwhelmed by all this, so I said, 'I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!' Then one of the seraphim took a coal from the altar and 'Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.' Then I heard God say, 'Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?' And I said, 'Here am I; send me!' That pretty much sums it up. Do you have any questions?"


I imagine that the chair of the commission on ministry would have said, "Thank you very much, Isaiah. We'll be in touch with you."


Flannery O'Connor said, “...the only thing that makes the Church endurable is that it is somehow the body of Christ... It seems to be a fact that you have to suffer as much from the Church as for it but if you believe in the divinity of Christ, you have to cherish the world at the same time that you struggle to endure it."


I know a little bit about suffering as much from the church as for it. At the beginning of my last semester in divinity school, my bishop told me, in effect, that I would be ordained over his dead body, and refused to tell me why he was doing this, except to say to me that the first time he met me he realized that I was incapable of following his pastoral direction. I then sought ordination in a different diocese but was eliminated from the ordination process there when the priest I was working for fired me. Almost ten years later I decided to try one more time and was finally ordained.


Steve, forgive me for not sharing that information with the search committee!


Aaron knows a bit about the suffering we have to endure from the church. I imagine that there are days when he is also tempted to order the businessman's special.


But we have come here today not to ordain Aaron. We have come here to empower him to exercise his priestly ministry in the Episcopal Church.


Another way of saying that is to say that we are here to invite Aaron to share his gifts with us and to offer to share our gifts with him.


If you have not gotten to know Aaron, I hope you will get to know him better, because I believe that he possesses extraordinary gifts.


I want to tell you a little about the gifts I believe Aaron has to share with us, but I first want to talk about the gifts that we have to share with him.


First, at its best, Anglicanism is characterized by reasonableness, toleration, and hospitality to outsiders. Another way of putting this is to say that our church is a "big tent."


Secondly, we are a global church. Quite unexpectedly, the Anglican Communion woke up one day and discovered that we were the church of some of the poorest people on earth. However, we weren't quite as pleased to learn that the kind of Anglicanism that our less affluent global neighbors preferred was conservative, evangelical, and sometimes aggressively proselytizing!


Thirdly, we are also a church that loves and values beautiful liturgy, thoughtful preaching, soaring architecture, and music of exceptional quality.


I recently saw this on a conservative Anglican blog: "The Church of England - serving Jesus with a slight air of superiority since the year 597."


I don't think that an air of superiority is one of our gifts, although it is sometimes one of our many faults. Psychologist Carl Jung reminds us that every strength has its "shadow side" or corresponding weakness.


Anglicanism's reasonableness, toleration, and hospitality to outsiders sometimes becomes an unwillingness to draw lines, to say that some things are right and others are wrong. A big tent is all very well and good but no tent is infinite. We are tolerant of everything except intolerance!


We are a global church partly because Anglicanism was a part of the British imperialistic agenda of the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. To enjoy the benefits of the British empire meant accepting not only the monarch's shilling but also his or her Bible and prayer book, too. The cross followed the flag, sometimes reinforced by cannon and rifles.


I love the liturgy, architecture, and music of Anglicanism. Sometimes I'm afraid that I love them too much. But religion cannot be just an aesthetic experience.


What of Aaron's gifts? They are many.


He brings us the gift of a keen and inquiring mind, a mind he has sharpened with learning. We like to believe that we are an intellectual church, and sometimes we are. But we can also be intellectually lazy. Very few bishops or priests are capable of writing a book as thoughtful and well-informed as Bishop Dan's book, God of Our Silent Tears, and even fewer clergy have the energy and discipline to write such a book. But I believe that Aaron could write a book like that, and I hope he'll make the effort.


Aaron also brings us a warm and compassionate spirit, and a sense of humor. I don't know why humor isn't one of the cardinal virtues. I can think of few gifts more valuable for the spiritual life than humor.


Aaron also brings us the gift of his youthfulness. Thirty-something looks a lot younger to me at 57 years of age than it did when I was in my twenties, but we need some evangelists and missionaries to work among the millenials, and Aaron can do that.


But most importantly, Aaron brings us the gift of his vocation to work as a military chaplain. I don't know whether or not Aaron will continue to serve as a military chaplain, but that is beside the point.


In today's gospel reading, Jesus says, "The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep." I do not know of any sheep who need a shepherd more than the men and women of our armed forces. We talk a lot about serving the marginalized, and I believe that the women and men in our military services are among the most marginalized people I know. Think of the suicide rate of veterans and those who are on active duty. Think of the almost daily reports about post traumatic stress disorder among present and former members of the military. Think about Congress's refusal to expand services to veterans and budget cuts to veterans' services. Think about the unemployment rate among veterans.


Aaron, you won't hear this nearly often enough in your career as a priest, so I want to say it now as clearly as I can: Thank you. Thank you for your willingness to offer yourself to serve God and God's people as a priest.


I hope you will not be tempted to order the businessman's special too often.